Africa. If I had a dime for each of the different- if not diametrically opposite- descriptions and connotations I’ve heard and read regarding the allegedly “Dark” Continent (oh boy, the cringe), I would be able to treat myself with a brand new camera, perhaps. This piece is by no means an attempt to do the same- on the contrary, it relates my (superficial at best) experience as a completely naive Westerner whose only previous knowledge of Africa came from literature (scientific and fictional) and documentaries.
To cut a long story short, I spent three weeks in South Africa in August 2018, working as a volunteer at Kinyonga Reptile Centre in Hoedspruit- not far from Kruger National Park. Kinyonga is a zoo and rehabilitation centre for rescued herpetofauna, housing a wealth of species ranging from Nile crocodiles to Burmese pythons. As volunteers, we had to help with the day-to-day functioning of the faclity- cleaning cages, feeding the animals, and even serving as guides for visitors. However, the staff at Kinyonga made sure we had enough opportunities to observe the natural wonders nearby. Thinking Kruger? Think again.
One day, Donald Strydom- founder and owner of Kinyonga and respected herpetologist- took us volunteers on an excursion to the Drakensberg (“Dragon Mountains” in Afrikaans), a stunningly beautiful landscape (see picture above) I had never even heard about before. It was nothing like what you normally see in documentaries or books set in Africa- no big game in sight, no savanna, let alone lush forest. To be clear, megafauna does occur in the area. The Blyde river, which cuts through the canyon, is inhabited by hippos, and there have been sporadic sightings of crocodiles in the past. Occasional elephants and several species of antelopes roam nearby, feasting on trees and shrubs. However, you would be way more likely to encounter those animals in one of the many private game reserves around Hoedspruit, or in Kruger. The Drakensberg offers a different kind of nature- but by no means less intriguing.
The river’s water level was low, which allowed us to proceed by climbing up and down the often huge rocks carried by the current over millions of years. Donald himself and my fellow volunteer Tommaso are experienced free climbers, while my other colleague Lars (who since then has been making a name for himself as a documentarist) was at least muscular enough to keep up- my laughable physique, however, inevitably kept me trailing behind. Oh well, at least I had quite a few chubby striped skinks (Trachylepis striatus) to keep me company along the way.
In the end, my lungs had their much needed break when we stopped to refresh ourselves- “winter” around Hoedspruit still offers 30-degrees temperatures on a regular basis. A few moments later, we were joined by a herd of cattle that apparently had the same idea. As Donald recounted, farming is the main source of income for rural communities in the area- and, as far as I know, throughout Africa in general (as inevitably simplistic as such a statement is). So yes, people do live in Africa, which might sound surprising to some considering how local communities barely ever appear in mainstream wildlife documentaries- shade intended.
We in the West are particularly attached to the romanticised concept of “wild Africa”, a land of pristine wilderness untouched by man. Nothing could be further from the truth. People have been living alongside wildlife in Africa for millennia and have every right to continue to do so- it is cheap to shout “overpopulation” and “local poachers” to find a scapegoat for the conservation crisis currently unfolding across the continent, but the roots of the issue are much deeper and uncomfortable to face. I highly recommend reading The Big Conservation Lie, by John Mbaria and Dr. Mordecai Ogada, to learn more about this matter- which will most definitely come back in (many) future posts on this platform as well.
After resting for a few minutes- and picking up as much of the disapppointingly large amount of plastic we found along the way, likely dropped by tourists and locals alike- we resumed our itinerary along the Blyde river. Barely any animal in sight- only birds and lizards, both way too swift to flee for me to photograph. However, our curiosity to experience South African nature was exceedingly satisfied- rather unexpectedly- by plants.
The picture above shows a gigantic sycamore fig (Ficus sycomorus) standing tall on the opposite bank of the river. It was hands down one of the largest trees I had ever seen, in terms of width if not height- in some spots, sunlight was barely able to penetrate such a thick canopy. So, how old do you think a tree must be to attain such a ridiculous size? For this species, the answer is: one or two centuries, perhaps even less.
Yes, you heard me- this monster was probably so young I couldn’t believe it when Donald told us. In fact, the sycamore fig is famous for its incredibly fast growth, at least for the standards normally typical of trees of that size. However, this would not be possible if the plant had a thick, rigid bark- wood is energetically expensive and time-consuming to grow, which is among the reasons why large trees normally develop over extended periods of time. Instead, the sycamore’s bark is way softer, so much so that you can scrape it from the trunk with relative ease. The genus Ficus as a whole is also well known worldwide for its deliciously sweet fruits, the syconia- my grandma adored them and always bought loads when the summer came. This giant here had none, but the shade provided by its canopy was a welcome relief for us.
The sun was getting lower and lower in the sky, so we decided to head back to the car and then to Kinyonga. Donald’s dogs, two beautiful Rhodesian ridgebacks named Sasha and Mia, led the way- he often brings them along when hiking. However, I was wondering what would have happened if one of them had come across a venomous snake- puff adders and even black mambas were known to occur in the area. When I asked Donald about it, he replied that indeed, pet-snake conflict is a major issue in South Africa- countless dogs and cats end up bitten by venomous snakes, which in turn often die fighting as well. Besides, Rhodesian ridgebacks were once regularly used to hunt and chase away lions- they sure won’t back down from a fight. Luckily, Donald knows this- much better than I do, for that matter- and took care of training Sasha and Mia to avoid any wild animal they might come across, snakes included.
Not far from the car, we stopped one last time to behold an imposing baobab (Adansonia sp.) towering above the landscape. Baobabs are a highly diverse and widespread genus, famous for their impressive size- this one was not even that big, yet quite a few people would be needed to completely encirle its girth (silly guy trying to pull off a pretentious pose for scale). Never would I have thought that a plant could possibly be so awe-inspiring and humbling to witness. Damn, I thought, I am already amazed by this place- and haven’t seen a single Big-Five animal nor any wild snake yet.
Maybe- just maybe, I suppose- such is also Africa.